No. 8 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: Pittsburgh
How much does where you live matter as a sports fan? The short answer is: It depends.
If you're an Alabama football fan, there's no better place to live than Tuscaloosa. If you're a Red Sox fan, there's no worse place to live than New York City.
But what if you were a free agent, so to speak? What if you loved sports but didn't have a specific affiliation to any team? You're moving to a new city. What city would have the most to offer you as a sports fan? What city would give you the best overall experience?
That is what we're here to find out. We took 25 of the best writers from Bleacher Report and beyond to objectively look at their cities and come up with a ranking. To get a better understanding of the categories and grading criteria, click here.
Pittsburgh comes in at No. 8. Let's find out why.
Number of Teams/Events: 16/20
Grading in this category is pretty simple. The United States recognizes four major professional sports: MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL. Pittsburgh covers three of the four—the NBA being the lone exception and likely never having a shot of coming to the Steel City—and has a strong stable of collegiate programs that can help atone for the NBA's absence.
Pitt basketball is the second-most covered college sport in the state behind Penn State football. There's a wide chasm, both in terms of success and coverage, but a trip to Oakland before a high-profile Panthers matchup washes the city with a coat of professional-level intrigue.
The Steelers and Pirates are the rare franchises that have been around without moving since our great-grandparents were in their prime. The love for those franchises is as deep-rooted as any city's relationship with any team in the United States. The Penguins have only been around since 1967, but they have enraptured fans with starry names like Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
From a pure numbers standpoint, Pittsburgh fulfills 75 percent of the U.S. requirements in pro sports. We'll add an extra point to give Pitt basketball credit for atoning for the lack of an NBA team.
Success of Teams in the Last 5 Years: 14/20
The five-year cutoff point is a disappointing turn of events for Pittsburgh. 2009 saw the Steelers and Penguins come away with championships. Make this list in 2013 and it'd be hard to quibble with giving the Steel City an 18 or 19 in this category.
In this five-year window, it's been a story of near-misses and disappointment. The Steelers have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the nadir of the Bill Cowher era (1998-2000). Their matching and perfectly mediocre 8-8 records in 2012 and 2013 mask the long-term problems of a rapidly aging roster and onerous cap sheet.
The Penguins have evolved into the perpetual contender that can't quite get things done in May and June. Management made risky win-now moves to bring a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in Crosby's prime, but it hasn't worked out. Despite being an Eastern Conference favorite every season, they've made the conference finals just once the last five years.
If you ask people, though, they might trade it all for the ascent of the Pirates. After two decades of futility and being a doormat on which MLB teams tap-danced on to their hearts' content, the Pirates finally returned to the playoffs last fall. It ended in disappointment, but the years of suffering made the 2013 squad as appreciated (if not more so) as the aforementioned title teams.
With a strong stable of young talent, that should be far from the last time Pittsburgh fans see October baseball.
Among relatively new stadiums—I'm talking ones that opened after the turn of the century—Heinz Field and PNC Park toe the line between state of the art and relics of years past. There are luxury boxes and high-priced seating to be sure, but the arenas carry the aesthetic of updated versions of decades past more than the extravagance of JerryWorld.
Heinz Field has its problems. Notably, the turf has garnered consistent criticism from players and NFL officials alike. Having Panthers and Steelers games on back-to-back days can often make an already sizable problem even worse.
For the fan experience, Heinz Field tends to be a little more expensive than most venues in terms of average ticket price. You're paying for the history when attending a Steelers game. And you're also paying for the fact that the Steelers will never, ever come close to a blackout due to demand.
PNC, on the other hand, is among the handful of best ballparks in Major League Baseball.
It's relatively cheap, offers a vast amount of tailgating space in the parking area around the field and the team will often throw in a random postgame concert. The ticket pricing hasn't nearly caught up to the Pirates' move into NL contention, which allows families to attend weekend games without taking a second mortgage.
The Consol Energy Center, home of the Penguins, is the newest arena in the city, but it is probably the least unique. It's fun, well-built and nice, but if you've been inside a newish arena, you've been inside the Consol.
Fan Passion: 7/10
Every fanbase thinks it has the best and most passionate on the planet. Regardless of the city, there is a legion of fans walking around with an inferiority complex, just waiting for someone to ever question their fandom.
Pittsburgh has those people. They're there, they're annoying and no one ever wants to sit within 10 rows of them at a stadium. But taken as a whole, the fans stand out for their duality between passion and rationality.
While Philadelphia is known as the boo capital of the world, Pittsburgh is tepid. Even rivals like the Baltimore Ravens get the respect they're due once the final whistle sounds. There's some hatred there but also an understanding of mutual respect. There are instances in which fans have turned on their own, but that's the case in every city.
I wouldn't necessarily categorize Pittsburgh in the same breath as Boston, New York, Chicago and even Philly. For rational human beings looking to attend a game in peace, though, that's probably a good thing.
General Fan Experience: 13/15
We've covered this in bits and parts already. Steelers games, outside of the most diehard season-ticket holders, are usually reserved for a once- or twice-a-year phenomenon. The cost is too steep, and every person in today's society must weigh doing everything that comes with going to a stadium against sitting at home in your high-definition comfort.
However, once you decide to attend, Pittsburgh stands out nicely. Unruly fans are a rarity; you're not in sudden danger if you show up wearing colors of the opposite team. The city has well-mapped-out parking within a reasonable distance of all three stadiums, even if it does cost about a semester's tuition to put your car in a spot for a couple hours.
There are also numerous bars, restaurants and activities within each stadium's radius for people of all ages. Pittsburgh works as both a college town and functional city. If your plans involve catching a ballgame and then engaging in debauchery into the wee hours of the night, you won't be without options. The revamped downtown also gives you the comfort of being in a "nice" city.
PNC, specifically Saturday night and Sunday afternoon games, stands out as the best fan experience. The stadium is packed, the tickets are pretty cheap and you're never going to feel as if you missed out on anything major in a 162-game baseball season.
This speaks to the veracity of the fanbase and the all-around desire for live programming, but it's nearly impossible to miss a Pittsburgh sporting event if you want to seek it out. The Penguins and Pirates both have television contracts with Root Sports, with nearly every one of their games—home or away—broadcast unless it's on national television.
Root even secured the ability to broadcast some early-round playoff games for the Penguins when they're not part of the regular broadcast rotation. In terms of following a team on a night-by-night basis, the Root Sports relationship has always been a major benefit.
The Steelers haven't had a non-sellout game since 1972. Given that this was before games were even broadcast on local television networks, generations of fans have come and gone without knowing what it's like to receive a blackout message. It's almost unthinkable for anyone who grew up in the area to envision a non-sellout.
Local beat reporters kind of represent the attitude of the city. They come to work every day, do their jobs to the best of their abilities and stay connected with the players, coaches and front office. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette has been around since before I was even born and is one of the most respected local guys in the business.
Star Power: 9/10
Pittsburgh boasts two of the most marketable individual players in their sport in Andrew McCutchen and Sidney Crosby.
McCutchen is the reigning National League MVP, a charismatic personality who plays the game with flair and has never had an inkling of off-the-field trouble. He even went on Ellen to propose to his fiancee. The most scandalous thing about him is that his favorite TV show, Devious Maids, is on Lifetime. He's been on the cover of video games, done interviews in non-sports magazines and is starting to branch out nationally.
Crosby is, well, the best hockey player on the planet. When healthy, there is no more devastating scorer in the NHL, and Crosby remains a national hero in Canada for his gold-medal-winning goal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. There's not much else that can be said about him that isn't already on his trophy case. It's frankly amazing how popular he remains in a city that also plays host to Evgeni Malkin.
As for the Steelers, well, the star power is lacking. Ben Roethlisberger is a nationally recognized name, but he is neither universally beloved nor much better than a league-average quarterback. Troy Polamalu's name recognition likewise outweighs his on-field contributions.
Not bad either way.
Tradition in the city of Pittsburgh mandates a much lengthier medium than a slideshow can hold. Entire books have been written about the Steelers franchise—in multiple eras—extolling the virtues of the Rooney family, the late Chuck Noll, the Steel Curtain defense, Bill Cowher and his constantly clenched jaw and even Neil O'Donnell.
Packers, Steelers, Bears, Cowboys and 49ers. In some order, those are the first five teams that come up for casual fans when discussing NFL history—and rightfully so. Twenty-one Super Bowls have been won by those five franchises, a league-record six of them by the Steelers. Only Dallas can match Pittsburgh's eight appearances in the United States' biggest sporting event.
When talking history, everything else pales in comparison to the Steelers' accomplishments.
The Penguins have had an excellent reign in their nearly 50 years. They're one up on the rival Philadelphia Flyers, who came into the league the same season. Although not the most successful franchise for their first two decades, the Pens have atoned for it in these past two.
And, umm, the less that's said about the Pirates post-1979 the better. They might be trending upward, but years of embarrassment don't wash away in one postseason run. Let's check back here in a decade.
Final Tally: 79/100
Pittsburgh is an NBA team away from having perhaps the best all-around sports experience in the United States. The fans are passionate yet respectful, the city has two of the best young stars in sports with McCutchen and Crosby and few cities have a team that can match the Steelers' legacy.
An NBA team—if it could actually thrive in a community that is largely agnostic toward pro hoops—is the missing ingredient. The city is one poor Penguins season away from going through the first four months on the calendar without a legitimate rooting interest. Having so much of the winter riding on the Penguins is OK when Crosby is in his prime, not so much in the lulls between superstars.
Heinz Field's overall mediocrity and the last half-decade of disappointment from the Steelers also knock the Steel City down a peg. Again, had we done this list in 2013, shoehorning the success of a 2009 Super Bowl might have helped. Instead, Mike Tomlin and Co. have missed the playoffs more often than they've made it in the last half-decade.
Overall, Pittsburgh is an underrated city that doesn't get enough credit among the best U.S. sports towns. Which, in a way, is what makes it so great.